Could Masculinity be Killing Us?

Dear Healthy Men: How much do you think that masculinity could be hurting men?

A: A lot. But I’d argue that it’s less masculinity itself and more the pressure to be a “real man”—which, thanks to phrases like “Man up,” “Play through it,” and “Big boys don’t cry,” starts long before we can even stand up—that’s doing the harm.

John and Sandra Condry, a husband-and-wife team of researchers at Cornell University conducted a few of my favorite studies. In one, they had several hundred men and women watch a videotape of a gender-neutrally dressed 9-month old playing with a jack-in-the-box. The Condrys told half of the adults that they were watching a boy, and the other half that they were watching a girl. When the jack-in-the-box popped, the people watching the “girl” described “her” reaction as fear. Those watching the “boy” described “his” reaction as anger.

That doesn’t sound like such a big deal until you realize that those perceptions translate into behavior—most of us would treat a frightened child very differently than an angry one. New mothers breastfeed girls longer than boys and they’re quicker to respond to, sooth, and cuddle with crying girls than boys.

The message is so strong that even a baby could figure it out (and plenty do): boys need to be tough. “Real” boys—and later, men—disregard pain, discomfort, and even common sense. Here are a few examples of how this plays out:

Our Jobs Are Killing Us. More than 90 percent of people killed in a workplace are male. And more than 90 percent of those who work in the most dangerous jobs are male. These include military service, roofing, logging, mining, firefighting, garbage collecting, working on an oil rig, and driving a truck.

Our Social Life Is Killing Us. On average, men have fewer friends and we’re less emotionally open with them than women are. A number of studies have found that loneliness is one of the biggest predictors of functional decline and death in older adults.

Our Diet Is Killing Us. Healthy food is for girls. Real men eat tons of fried foods, bacon, and red meat. Study after study has found a clear association between a “manly” diet and heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes.

Other Stuff We Put in Our Mouth Is Killing Us. Men are more likely as women to die from alcohol-related causes (which include cirrhosis of the liver, cancer, car accidents, and violence), and we’re more likely than women to smoke and die from smoking-related conditions.

The Way We Play Is Killing Us. Over the past few years, we’ve learned more and more about concussions and brain injury, a lot of which come from violent sports like boxing, football, lacrosse, and rugby. Oh, and let’s not forget about mixed martial arts (UFC, and so on), where the gloves you wear are designed to protect your hands, not cushion the blows to your opponent’s head. And, of course, when we sustain an injury, we’re told to play through it. How many times have we heard about athletes who played with broken bones or other injuries?

Non-violent sports (like baseball and cycling) can be deadly too, especially when they involve taking steroids and other supplements that have been linked with long-term disability and death.

Going Outside Is Killing Us. Dermatologists recommend that all of us—male and female—put on sunscreen every day, and for good reason: too much exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays causes skin cancer. But because lotions and sunscreen are for girls, men are far less likely than women to apply them. As a result, twice as many men as women develop and die from skin cancers.

How We Get from Place to Place Is Killing Us. Male drivers are more likely than females to cause, be injured in, or die in car accidents.

Our Attitude about Healthcare Is Killing Us. Men are half as likely as women to have seen a doctor in the past year. If we don’t go, we can’t get important health screenings that could save or extend our life. Jean Bonhomme, an advisor to Men’s Health Network says it’s all about the “terrible twos.” In our teens and 20s, we’re too tough; in our 30s and 40s, we’re too busy; and in our 50s and up, we’re too afraid of what we might find out.

So the next time anyone tells you to “man up,” think about whether that’s something you really want to do. After all, it could kill you.

Previously published on Healthy Men Today

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